In the 2013 Chinese romantic comedy “Beijing Meets Seattle”, Wen Jiajia, a married man's girlfriend, traveled to Seattle alone to deliver her baby and met Frank, a former Beijing doctor turned care center driver in Seattle. While the movie was about friendship, love, and the dreams of two struggling souls, one viewer Xiao Xue, or “Little Snow” saw a business opportunity.
Little Snow was pregnant at the time and after watching the show, decided to travel to the United States to have her baby. The number of such traveling moms-to-be has risen sharply from merely 600 in 2007 to more than 80,000 in 2016. With a minimum budget of 200,000 RMB (about US29,048), this special group of Chinese travelers has fed a multi-billion dollar industry in Los Angeles, the la la land of birth tourism.
Jing Daily caught up with Little Snow, who now runs a WeChat consultancy service for birth tourism. She has advised more than 500 clients throughout the whole process, from obtaining their visa, to choosing a credible care center, and making appointments with the right doctors. She takes the veil off of this mysterious and often misunderstood travel group, as well as explains the changes she has observed in the industry over the years.
These women have all kinds of profiles. We cannot simply classify them by age, education level, or profession. However, they do share three things in common. First, they have money. Most of my clients have an annual household income between 300,000 RMB (US43,572) and 2 million RMB (US290,486). While they may not be hyper-rich to spend millions on immigration, they can certainly afford the trip. Second, they have time, as the trip lasts three months on average. Most importantly, they have guts. In their most vulnerable period in life, they dare to travel across the Pacific Ocean and face all of the uncertainties on their own.
They take the risk for the next generation. As competition for limited resources is intensifying in China, these anxious parents want to provide their children another option, an option to escape the pressure at home and access to education and career opportunities in the United States and around the world conveniently. A baby born in the United States will automatically get a U.S. passport, which offers visa-free or visa on arrival travel to more than 180 countries. Of course, it is up to the child to decide where to study, work, and live. Parents just want to provide that freedom.
Los Angeles is where most people would go, because of the pleasant California weather, a large Chinese community, attractive entertainment options, and most importantly, a mature birth tourism industry. Whether it is to get the birth documents done urgently or hire an experienced maternity matron to take care of the mother and baby, there is someone in Los Angeles who can do it.
Saipan is also on the rise for birth tourism, mostly due to its visa-free policy for Chinese travelers. The flight from China to Saipan takes only five hours, which is nearly half of the time needed to arrive to the United States. However, Saipan has fewer options for doctors, care centers, and even entertainment. The maximum 45-day stay without extension also adds stress, as everything from delivering the baby to getting the birth documents needs to be done within this time frame.
A lot of agents promise moons and stars in order to “sell” customers the care centers in the United States. Hence, I tell my customers not to trust the fancy images online and pay a huge deposit to the local agents. As competition gets tougher in this industry, many care centers offer a “three-day trial stay”, which is a good opportunity to check out the actual facilities and services before making a decision.
For many women traveling alone, a care center is the most convenient option. In addition to food and board, a common three-month package covers everything from regular pregnancy check-ups, to 24-hour postpartum care and even a one-month birthday party for the newborn. But living under one roof with several pregnant women may cause conflicts, so those with overseas experience and family companions prefer a more DIY experience to enjoy more personal space.
About 200,000 RMB (US29,048) is average, 250,000 RMB (US36,310) is good, and 300,000 RMB (US 43,573) is very comfortable. As a care center owner usually rents a house, rent in upscale areas drives up the prices. Moreover, moms spend a lot on entertainment, as they want to enjoy this long “holiday”. So they frequent shopping malls and even theme parks. For a few women with the luxury of having their husbands' company, they even go on road trips. The care centers organize three outings every week for moms to eat, shop, and have fun.
The “honest visa” is the norm now, as disclosing your real intentions prevents dealing with the consequences of visa fraud. With more players entering this industry, information is more accessible and services are improving.
Unmarried pregnant women do birth travel to escape social pressure. More middle-class urban families are willing to make this “investment”. Those who come to deliver the second baby hope their first child can experience a new culture as well, so private kindergartens that are flexible enough to take the child in for several months are in high demand.